Producers – Who needs them?

Does a producer provide a helpful overview or an obstruction to genius? A creative protector or a meddler? An initiator or an exploiter? These are some of the questions a seminar organised by Cartoon UK, at the International Animation Festival Cardiff, set out to answer. Report by David Jefferson.

Ian Harvey opened the seminar by explaining that it was partly inspired by the experience of a film-maker friend of Ian’s who had an clever idea for a film. Friends encouraged him and he wrote a script that was perceived as good. With the help of a friend he developed the script to commercial length. He managed to raise development finance through his energy, enthusiasm and the cleverness of his idea. Unfortunately he had already made two bad mistakes because of his inexperience. The first concerned copyright: the film-maker and the friend who helped never discussed what would happen during the act of making the film. Because of the sacrosanct nature of copyright law he was effectively stopped from making his own film until his friend agreed the terms on which he could proceed, using his contribution to the script. Secondly, even though they had the sense to make an agreement with the financier, that agreement did not cover what might happen if the financier did not deliver, or if he withheld funds. Even if you have an agreement you need to cover unexpected areas. It was the intention of the seminar to pinpoint such errors and to help filmmakers to avoid them. He introduced the panel of Orly Yadin, Mark Baker, Nico Crama and Clare Kitson.

Orly Yadin is with Flashback Television and produced the Blind Justice series for Channel 4. Orly outlined what she considered to be the essence of a producer’s role, especially when working with less experienced filmmakers. The core of any film is ‘the good idea’, something that should never be forgotten, even with the pressures of film-making during the production. Orly said she would not be talking about legal, distribution and financial matters, which are also the role of the producer, but would concentrate on the creative help the producer can provide the director. When a producer looks at an idea, whether it is in the form of a treatment, a storyboard, a script or whatever its initial form, if the producer does not think it is a great idea he or she should not even start working with that film director. However, the producer should be able to recognize the potential of an idea that needs more work or has elements missing, whether they are structural elements or script elements. The director may need assistants or complementary people to work with them; it could be a script writer, somebody who could help sharpen up the images, or it could be something else.

“Film-making is a very stressful business, the whole creative process is a very tense one, and it is also very tiring,” said Orly. “It is emotionally draining because you are putting your entire creative energy into it, and physically draining because you are working very long hours. It is very easy during this exciting but tense period to actually lose sight of what you originally set out to do.” Film-making is a process where you can come across new ideas and go off at a tangent. The producer is an outsider not involved in the intensity of the creative process, but at the same time an insider because the producer knows what the director wants to do, understands the processes and is therefore in a position to be sympathetic and helpful. It is the distance the producer has that enables her or him to be helpful and ensure the good idea that started it all off and which raised the finance, is still there at the end.

There are also outside pressures that can make the film go off-course, financial pressures, legal problems and all kinds of unforeseen things which happen during production. Often it is necessary to make changes and compromises because we are working in the real world, and anything can happen. “The trick is to know which of the necessary compromises will not detract from the core,” observed Orly. “and which are changes that will help the film without hurting the real thing.”

First-time film-makers often believe the role of the producer is purely financial. A student making a film in college may be unaware of the amount of support and the amount of people involved with that film within the college. One is in a kind of cocoon in college, there is the finance, the technical facility, there are tutors to help the student along, to discuss ideas and to suggest things. There are other students who help on the production, with camera, editing, and technical assistance or who will discuss ideas. Everything in the real world of film-making can be found in college. When students start to make films after college they often forget about the support the college provided. Orly suggested the role of the producer mirrors the support they got in college and no longer have in the big wide world.

“Animation is a process of film-making with many parallels to live-action film-making, it is not a lone artist in a garret with a paint brush and easel, needing no one except the paint supplier,” observed Orly. “Film-making is team work, nobody can make a film on their own however much they are in control.

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